|Conjectural reconstruction of Lissue ringfort in about A.D. 1000, from the south east. (Drawn by D. Crone).|
One of the commonest types of ancient monument in Ireland, still to be seen in large numbers around the countryside despite a high rate of destruction, is the small circular bank of earth, usually with a still visible surrounding ditch, known to the countryman as a `fort' or `forth'. A typical example of this monument1, referred to by archaeologists as a `ringfort', or 'rath', would have a single earthern bank with an outer ditch, would be between about 50 and 150 feet (15 and 50 metres) across internally (from bank crest to bank crest), and would have an internal area averaging about 1/4 acre (1/10 hectare). It would have a single entrance facing downhill, with a causeway across the ditch, and would be located on slightly sloping land below the 600 foot (200 metre) contour. There are variations, of course. The size can be greater; there can be two, or even three close-set concentric banks-and-ditches it may be sited on top of a drumlin. The bank may be partly or wholly made of stone with no outer ditch or the whole site may be raised as an earthen platform. But most of these sites have one thing in common: their explanation. They are mostly the defended habitations of wealthy cattle farmers living in the `early Christian period', that is, between about 500 A.D. and about 1200 A.D. They are `defensive' not in their siting, which is dictated by agricultural convenience, but in the nature of the surrounding bank and-ditch2.
A fairly large number of ringforts have been excavated over the years and although these were seldom extensive it is nonetheless possible to make some generalisations about the contemporary appearance of such a site.3 The bank, made of the upcast from the often deep ditch, may well have had a reverted inner face, either with a continuous paling of wooden stakes or planks or with dry-stone. There is likely to have been a single, substantial house at its centre either circular with wattle-and-stake walls or rectangular, with stone-and-earth walls. There would have been a square central hearth often made of four large stones set on edge and the roof would have been thatched with straw, turves or heather. In the courtyard, the annular area between the house and the bank, we would expect a number of smaller buildings and animal pens, the sort of structures one would find in a mixed working farm. The entrance to the site, across a causeway left undug in the ditch, would have led through a fairly strong gateway in the bank, and then by a paved or cobbled path to the main house. Many of these features were found in a carefully excavated ringfort in the townland of Ballymacash, two miles north of Lissue, one of the few local excavated forts. 4 Outside the fort, we would expect to find more pens as well as fields and the huts of the farm-workers.
There may again be variations on this theme. For instance, the occupants, instead of being farmers, might have been craftsmen. In this case, we would expect to find, in or around the ringfort, traces of their workshops or furnaces instead of farm buildings. Or the occupants might have been nobles or kings, in which case we would expect stronger defenses, a larger house and perhaps other signs of power or wealth.5 In some cases, no traces of occupation or structures are present, and the site is interpreted as a defended stockyard.
In place-names, two words commonly refer to ringforts. The first is Rath, the anglicised form of Irish ráith, literally meaning an `earthern bank'. Rathmore-`great fort'-near Antrim is an example. The other word is Lis, Irish lios (earlier les), literally meaning a 'courtyard' or `enclosure'.6 This is the first element in the townland name Lissue, Irish Lios-Áedha `the fort of (a person called) Aed'.7
|Fig. 1. The wooden churn from the first ringfort. (Photograph Ulster Museum).||Fig. 3. The slate with sketches from the final phase of the second ringfort. (Photograph Ulster Museum).|
During the Second World War, Dr. Gerhard Bersu, a leading German archaeologist, who had come to Britain as a refugee from Hitler's persecutions, was interned with his wife Maria on the Isle of Man. Soon after his release, Dr. Bersu was given a post at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Dublin, and his great excavational skill was used for the benefit of Irish archaeology. He agreed to excavate a ringfort in the North of Ireland and Professor Estyn Evans of the Queens University searched widely for a suitable site. After much consideration, it was decided that Lissue was a good choice. Accordingly, a very substantial portion of the interior was carefully excavated during the summers of 1946 and 1947, under the direction of Dr. and Mrs. Bersu, and the preliminary results were promptly published in the Ulster Journal of Archaeology.' Dr. Bersu's subsequent return to the Directorship of the Roömisch-Germanische Kommission in Frankfurt am Main, and his death some years later, prevented full publication although he did write an almost complete text9 This article is intended simply as an appetiser for the final report.
ringfort of Lissue, three miles west of Lisburn,10 is, in its
unexcavated appearance, an almost typical example of the class. It lies on the
eastern slope of a small hill, or drumlin, just below its summit at 130 feet (40
metres) above sea-level. It has one surrounding bank-and-ditch and the entrance
faces downhill (to the east). With a diameter of some 200 feet (60 metres), it
is, however, rather larger than usual. Poor drainage in this heavy local clay
means that much of the internal area and the ditch are often waterlogged. For
the archaeologist, this is a beneficial situation for it means that organic
material, such as wooden vessels, or the seeds of plants and crops, may be
preserved. It was immediately apparent to Dr. Bersu that the interior of the
ringfort had been cultivated during the 19th century by the use of spade ridges.
This widespread recent use of the interiors of ringforts is always destructive
of much of the archaeological evidence, and Lissue had not escaped. But Dr.
Bersu was a meticulous excavator and even where cultivation had been heavy, he
found archaeological remains. He also found that the erosion, and deliberate
partial levelling of the bank had, prior to this cultivation, covered the part
of the interior just inside the bank with a protective layer of extra soil. This
had preserved enough underlying evidence to allow a reconstruction of the
history and original appearance of the site. Dr. Bersu also discovered that by a
happy chance (and unusually in such sites) the presumably continuous
waterlogging of the interior since its abandonment over a thousand years ago
had, in many cases, preserved the stumps of original oak posts in the ringfort.
He uncovered enough of the interior of the enclosure to ascertain the plan of
the structures formed by these posts and others that had since rotted, and an
unusual reconstruction it was. A detailed description of the soils and layers
uncovered by Dr. Bean, and his arguments for their reconstruction, will have to
await the final report. Suffice it here to outline the archaeology of the site
as he interpreted it.
FIRST RINGFORT.. LISSUE I
Dr. Bersu discovered that there had been a small ringfort on the site prior to the construction of the one now visible. Virtually none of its interior or bank survived the later occupation and use of the site, but he completely emptied a substantial stretch of its steep-sided, six feet (two metres) deep, flat bottomed ditch of its fill. At the bottom was a thin muddy silt in which was embedded much organic debris, such as sticks, wooden vessels and animal bones, as well as pottery, all thrown in by the occupants.
The wooden objects were by far the most interesting artifacts, having been preserved due to the waterlogged nature of the ditch with its impermeable clay sides. Included in this material were a number of fine, though now fragmentary, beech or alder bowls made on a lathe. Indeed, the waste pieces from the making of these bowls, and perhaps even portions of the lathe, were also found, so showing that the bowls were made at Lissue. A similar wooden bowl was found in the ringfort at Seacash near Aldergrove.11 Pieces of leather shoes were also found, one being rather like an ankleboot. But the best find was an oak stave-built churn almost two feet (50 cm.) deep, with a narrow mouth (fig. 1). It was made of nineteen neatly fitting staves bound by two wooden hoops and two iron hoops. The iron hoop around its middle had two iron rings attached to it, and it has been suggested that the vessel was a swinging churn for making butter.12 The pottery belonged to a class of simple `saucepan' shaped vessels found almost exclusively in eastern Ulster and known to archaeologists as 'souterrain' ware.13 The pots from this early ditch were occasionally decorated with nicked rims and often had a simple clay cordon around them for ease of holding. After only a short period of use the ditch was filled with clay, probably from the bank, and the site levelled. A new ringfort ditch-and-bank were then constructed on the same spot.
SECOND RINGFORT: LSSUE 11 (fig. 2)
|Fig. 2. Plan of the second ringfort, Lissue II. The house plan, that is the central portion and the concentric posts, is that of the first building phase. The second and third were virtually identical. The bridge is shown as it was in the second phase. (Plan drawn by Richard Warner).|
The second, much larger, ringfort is the one that can be seen today. It had a v-sectioned ditch some 15 feet (5 metres) wide and six feet (2 metres) deep which was open for far longer than the first ringfort ditch. It had been partly filled with much organic detritus thrown in by the occupiers of the settlement, and after abandonment, a layer of peat had grown in the still-waterlogged hollow. Much later, some of the bank had been pushed into the half-filled ditch, almost filling it. The bank had originally been quite substantial, perhaps six feet (two metres) high and 20 feet (6 metres) wide, constructed entirely of clay (probably that dug from the ditch). It had been faced on the inside with a paling of wooden posts set continuously in a trench.
Dr. Bersu found that the interior had been heightened twice by putting down a layer of clay, possibly because of water sitting on the surface. The bank was remodelled with a new inner revetment each time. There were therefore three well defined phases of occupation relating to this second ringfort, and where the layers remained undisturbed by the later spade ridges, the material from them could be related to each phase.
I shall describe the interior during a single phase only, because the excavator discovered that it was, in each phase, virtually identical. At the centre was a hearth, around which was an oval setting of large square oak posts. Outside this again was an almost rectangular, very shallow trench edged inside and out with posts and with a break on the eastern side. Dr. Bersu interpreted this trench as the foundation of a sod wall, and indeed in size (some 30 feet, or 9 metres, square internally), shape and central position, the structure looks much like a large example of the sort of house to be expected at the centre of a ringfort. In this case, the inner ring of posts would have supported the roof. But the area between the outside of the `house' and the inner face of the bank, instead of containing traces of sheds or pens, was found to contain concentric circles of large square wooden posts, centred on the centre of the 'house' (the hearth). Without going into detailed arguments, I will simply give it as the excavator's conclusion, with which I fully agree, that these posts held a roof which completely covered the interior of the ringfort, its eaves being on the bank itself.14 Such a structure is otherwise unknown in a ringfort, The second, and main, ringfort at Lissue was, then, completely filled by a single huge building some 130 feet (40 metres) in diameter. The 'house' wall at the centre was simply a partition of some sort inside this structure, and around the hearth.
The entrance to the central partitioned `hearth' area led along a paved path through a six foot wide passage through the bank, to a gate in its outer face. Thence, unusually for a ringfort, it led across the ditch over a wooden bridge rather than the usual causeway, and out through another gate in a fence on the outer edge of the ditch. In the mid 1940s, the farmer remembered a gravelly `roadway' leading away from this entrance, towards the east.
As I have said, the complete structure-the bank revetment, the building, the bridge and the central partitioned area - was replaced twice, giving three virtually identical structural phases. As to the artifacts discovered, these levels of the second ringfort produced a large amount of the 'souterrain' pottery, a bronze pin, some iron objects, two glass beads and a fragment of a bronze ladle.15 The pottery was rather different from that of the first ringfort, being better made and having, in many cases, its cordons decorated with thumb impressions or with little squeezed-up pyramids of clay.
But the most spectacular find, from the last phase, was a slab of slate covered with
carefully drawn incised sketches: an animal, bits of interlace, geometric
patterns etc., (fig 3). It had on it the sort of patterns that could be found on
contemporary metal ornaments, or in decorated gospel books, or perhaps even on
peoples' clothes. Decorated slates like this are called by archaeologists
'trial' pieces (or 'motif' pieces), but their real purpose is quite unknown. 16
This one was found in the layer of charcoal and burning that represented the
demise of the site, a dramatic end in which a large proportion of the great
structure was destroyed by fire. Usefully it can be approximately dated to about
A.D. 1000 by the ornaments carved on it. This approximate date is supported by
the other artefacts, to which a date around the 10th century would apply. It was
Bersu's belief that each wooden building would hardly have lasted more than 50
years in the Irish climate, then as now rather wet. This would give some 150
years for the maximum length of use of the three phases, and an earliest date in
the middle of the 9th century for the first ringfort and the beginning of the
second. These dates are, of worse, only approximate, but as we would hardly
expect such a huge structure to be replaced sooner than was necessary, they seem
Although the structures discovered by Dr. Bersu in the second ringfort - the huge house and the bridge - are unparalleled in any other ringfort, they are not on that account to be thought of as non-Irish. The ringfort itself was typical in its general form and siting. The finds, particularly the pottery, were absolutely characteristic of contemporary sites in the north east of Ireland. It was, indeed, a purely Irish site, and the explanation for its strange nature must be in the complexity of contemporary Irish society. Berm, in common with many archaeologists, was unfamiliar with the fact that the Early Christian Irish left an incredibly full written record of their times.17 It was a society whose it is only part of its surviving evidence, and can only be interpreted within the historical framework. 18 Having said this, it must also be emphasised that the attempt to connect historical events with archaeological evidence is fraught with dangers. It is an exercise which provides only possibilities, not certainties, but it is worth mooting these possibilities when they help to flesh out the bare archaeology with real people and events.
It is clear that the second ringfort was not simply a farm, as most were. There are descriptions of houses in the texts preserved from that time 19, and these include huge round houses with many partitions. The people who would be expected to have a house of this size were a king and a hosteller. There is some evidence to support each of these possibilities as the explanation for Lissue. A hosteller was a wealthy member of society whose function was to provide accommodation for travellers 20 The hostel building itself would have been substantial, and would probably have been a separate establishment from the hosteller's farm(s). It is likely to have been close to roads or a river crossing. There was probably a crossing of the river Lagan near here-the name 'Long Kesh' on the Co. Down side of the river implies the existence of a causeway, perhaps leading from such a crossing. Lissue is also on the opposite side of the river from the Early Christian monastery at Blaris, and as centres of pilgrimage and commerce, monasteries were targets for many travellers, though they might be expected to have had their own hostels.
On the other hand, we have quite good evidence of a royal explanation. The main royal dynasty providing kings in east Co. Down and south Co. Antrim at this time was that of the Dál Fiatach 21 Their kings were overkings of many of the minor tribes scattered around the area and often of the whole north east (the Ulaid). They had strong links with Downpatrick from an early time, but had fragmented into several separate dynasties, between which the kingship alternated, by the 9th century. For instance, one dynastic line had its capital at Dún Echduch, Duneight in Co. Down, which was the target of enemy action in 942, 10(14 and 1 011. 22 In A.D. 882 Ainbíth, a powerful king of the Ulaid, and a member of the Dún Echdach dynastsy (who were descendants of his grandfather, Eochaid) died. He is credited in an early genealogical tracts with having founded the `family of Lisaeda', that is the `family of the fort of Aed', Aed being his father. We cannot be certain that the Lios Áedha in which this family lived was our Lissue, but it seems probable. As the Lios of the text was named after Ainbíth's father, we would assume it was built by him also. Áed was not, apparently, king, the kingship having gone instead to his brother. Ainbíth's son did become king (of Ulaid as well as Dál Fiatach) but I know of no record of further direct descendants.
Áed would have died around the middle of the 9th century (his father died in 810, his brother in 839 and his son in 882). This is the date that Dr. Bersu postulated on archaeological grounds for the first ringfort and the beginning of the second (as I have said, Bersu was unaware of the historical evidence). We can, perhaps, hypothesize that Áed built the first ringfort, and his son Ainbíth, on becoming king, built the substantially larger replacement. We know that Lissue ended in a conflagration that consumed much of the third version of the great house. If this had been accidental, we should wonder why it was not then replaced. Even if it was intentional, we cannot assume that such a burning was part of an event important enough to be recorded in the annals. But there are two recorded events of which either possibly provide an explanation.
In 1004, the king of the Dál Fiatach was killed in a great battle at Crew near Glenavy. The battle is described in the contemporary annal as having `extended to Drumbo and Duneight'. Clearly if fighting stretched from Crew to Drumbo, then Lissue, being in between, would hardly have escaped the consequences. The second event is close in time to the first. In 1011, the High King, on a hosting into the north to take hostages (and impose his authority), burned the capital of the local king at Duneight. We might well expect that other sites in the locality with a family connection would have suffered a similar fate. We may, in any case, be struck by the fact that these events date roughly to the same time that the decorated stone indicates for the date of the Lissue conflagration, about A.D. 1000.
the Lissue ringfort is, as the excavation showed, a remarkable site with a very
unusual structural history. 1 have shown how this might be explained by a
possible royal status, and how the archaeological and historical evidence might
possibly interconnect. The site is now on the edge of an expanding industrial
zone, and will no doubt soon be surrounded by factories. That it is safe we can
now be quite sure, as it is in State Care. We can be equally sure that it was a
site well worth preserving.
|1.||S. P. Ó Ríordáin, Antiquities of the Irish Countryside, 5th ed., 1979, pp. 29-44. Historic Monuments of Northern Ireland, 1983, pp. 70-31.|
|2.||Many archaeologists have denied the defensive nature of ringforts. See note 18 below.|
|3.||V. B. Proudfoot, `The economy of the Irish Rath', Medieval Archaeology, 5, 1961, pp. 94-121.|
|4.||Not yet published.|
|5.||Status may be shown in many ways, such as two or more banks-and-ditches, or a larger than normal zone free from other ringfort, around the site. It may also be discoverable from the sort of objects found during excavation.|
|6.||D. Flanagan, `Settlement terms in Irish place-names', Onoma, 17, 1973, pp. 157-169. In the early texts. many contemporary with the ringforts, the words often used for a ringfort are reach - 'earthwork' and dun - `fort' or 'stronghold'.|
|7.||Although Irish Lios Áedha could come to be pronounced Lissoo locally (information from the late D. Flanagan), it is possible that the Irish personal name Áed was assimilated to English Hugh. On his map published in 1685, Sir William Petty has Lishu.|
|8.||G. Bersu, `The Rath in townland Lissue, Co. Antrim, report on excavations in 1946', Ulster Journal of Archaeology, 10, 1947, pp. 30-58. G. Bersu, `Preliminary report on the excavations al Lissue, 1947', Ulster Journal of Archaeology, 11, 1948, pp. 131-133.|
|9.||The text was complete, but sadly the draft was not very readable. The task of preparing it for publication fell first to Professor E. M. Jope, then passed to me. Although Dr. Bersu was a first class excavator and interpreter, his knowledge of the Irish background was not extensive. This deficiency will, as far as is possible, be made good in the final report, to be published soon by H.M.S.O.|
|10.||Townland of Lissue or Teraghafeeva, Co. Antrim, Irish Grid Reference 1 228633. Sites and Monuments Record number Antrim 67:13 (Historical Monuments Branch of the DoE). The site is now in State Care, see Historic Monuments of Northern Ireland, 1983, p. 72.|
|11.||C. J. Lynn, `A rath in Seacash townland, County Antrim', Ulster Journal of Archaeology, 41, 1978, pp. 55-75.|
|12.||For this suggestion and for much other detailed explanation and illustration, see the first report listed in note 8 above.|
|13.||It is called `souterrain ware' because of its occasional occurrence in the Early Christian artificial underground refuges, or caves, common in Cos. Antrim and Down, known to archaeologists as souterrains. M. F. Ryan, `Native pottery in Early Historic Ireland', Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, 73c, 1973, pp. 619-645.|
|14.||This interpretation is by no means accepted by all archaeologists. Nevertheless it is, I believe, correct.|
|15.||See note 8 above, the first report, for illustrations.|
|16.||U. O'Meaedhra, Early Christian. Viking and Romanesque Art: Motif-Pieces from Ireland, 1979. The Lissue piece is no. 130 on pp. 95-97.|
|17.||See, for instance, M. & L. De Pact, Early Christian Ireland, 1967 and K. Hughes, Early Christian Ireland: Introduction to the Sources, 1972.|
|18.||It was, for instance, due to an ignorance among many archaeologists of the endemic problem of cattle and slave raiding in early Irish society, that the defensive nature of ringforts was denied. The vulnerability of the ringfort to an army was allowed to obscure the fact that small parties of rustlers' and looters were the greatest nuisance. Against these, the ringfort was an admirable defence for people and stock.|
|19.||H. Murray, `Documentary evidence for domestic buildings in Ireland c.400-1200 in the light of archaeology', Medieval Archaeology, 23, 1979, pp. 81-97.|
|20.||K. Simms, `Guesting and feasting in Gaelic Ireland', Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, 108, 1978, pp. 67-100.|
|21.||For this, see F. J. Byrne, Irish Kings and High Kings, 1973, chapter 7.|
|22.||These dates, and the events, are taken from The Annals of Ulster, edited by S. Mac Art and G. Mac Niocaill, 1983.|
|23.||M. E. Dobbs, 'The history of the descendants of Ír', Zeitschrift fur Celtische Philologie, 14, 1923, p. 84.|
Richard Warner is Assistant Keeper of Later Antiquities in the Ulster Museum, where he specializes in the Early Iron Age and the Early Christian period.